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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Museum harvests oyster memories

By WENDI WINTERS, For The Capital

Memories of the oyster trade are fading away faster than a photograph left out in the sun, but it is the job of Epping Forest resident Sharie Valerio to find and capture them on film and audiotape.
Then, she presents them for current and future generations.
"The Annapolis Maritime Museum has a grant from the Four Rivers Heritage Area to record 12 oral histories for this exhibit. It will be the key attraction in the museum," she said. "We've gotten some names and interviews, but we know there's more people out there. People think they don't have anything and then the memories just spill out."

Today there are local residents who have never met an oysterman, have never watched an oyster being shucked, and who didn't know oyster beds used to be so healthy and numerous that they'd block the highways and byways of the Chesapeake Bay.

Ms. Valerio is the artistic director and a partner in Remember Inc., a group that brings memories to life through re-enactments. She is also the Severn School's theater director.

As part of the "Oysters on the Half Shell," an "immersive-experience" exhibit planned for the Annapolis Maritime Museum, Ms. Valerio finds and captures the memories of men and women who harvested oysters on the bay or who processed them in oyster-packing houses that were once as numerous in Annapolis as Starbucks Coffee shops are now.

The museum is located on the Back Creek site of McNasby's, the last oyster-packing plant in the Annapolis area to close.

The old Eastport building was severely damaged during Tropical Storm Isabel, but plans are on track to make it a first-rate educational experience about life on the bay.

"The cultural and natural history of the oyster is, perhaps, the most important story the museum can relate," said museum director Jeff Holland. "Because upon that single bivalve hinged the very history of the people and culture of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County."

"Anyone who walks into McNasby's once it reopens will get a sensory experience of the life of the oysterman," said Ms. Valerio, fleshing out the plans of the exhibit architects.

Eventually, visitors to the museum will interact with reenactors portraying the oystermen who toiled in the plant or out on the bay. Standing in front of interactive exhibits, beneath special speakers, visitors will be able to hear the stories of the people who worked in the oyster trade.

Remember Inc. is looking for memories from the 1930s through the 1960s. They are also seeking photos and artifacts of that time.

"We want to tell all the story, not just one perspective. We want the conflict and humor, all the things that make it feel human," said Ms. Valerio.

Ms. Valerio's father was Selden Lacey, a well known local actor who died in 1987. Her interest in collecting audio-memories sprang from the realization she didn't have any recordings of her father's voice. "I missed hearing it," she said.

Those who are interested in contributing their memories to the project should contact Ms. Valerio at the museum by calling 410-295-0104.

On March 13, during an evening at Barge House, Ms. Valerio is presenting preliminary results of Remember Inc.'s research with a seminar, "Shuckin' and Tongin': A Day's Work at McNasby's."

Oral histories of some of the people already interviewed have been culled and developed into short theatrical presentations by professional actors that bring the era back to life.

A glimpse of the format was presented by actor Tim King. He interpreted the memories of Eastport native Art Teurs during the December Grand Ole Osprey event.

At the March 13 seminar, performers will present more of the colorful first-person memories. "We'll also show how a memory gets transcribed and goes from the printed page to a script, and then comes alive with enactors Tim King and Candace Clark," she said.

Ms. Valerio interviewed Marva Smith Henson, for the project. Mrs. Henson, whose grandfather was an oysterman, was born and raised at 135 Eastern Ave., right behind McNasby's.

"Back in the day, I remember his hands were so cold when he came in. They had burst open," she said. "I remember when I was a child … (they were) bleeding and we had to rub the hands because he couldn't put them near the heat. It was unbearable."

Former mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer told his memories of the area, too. "When I was growin' up in the 30s and 40s, everything you did, the water was a part of it. Most of the streets of Eastport up until World War II were oyster shell," he said.

"Everybody made their living off the water. And, when you're out there, sailin' together, the color of your skin didn't mean any more than the size of your shoes. We were all human beings. It was what you had inside, not on the outside."

Ms. Valerio grew up in Eastport, near Bay Ridge. "We were across from Duckett Farm, where the Eastport Shopping Center is now," she said. "I went to Eastport Elementary, but it's interesting to find stories of that time. As a child, I was not aware of the life that revolved around the oyster. I didn't go to that part of Eastport."

According to Art Tuers, it was another world entirely. "See, we'd be down by McNasby's playing football or softball or something. Or sometimes I'd just be setting there listening to the shuckers sing," he told Ms. Valerio. "They used to sing while they were shucking. They sang, they sang and I mean it was unbelievable - unbelievable! There were about 60 shuckers and they were all mostly black women and they'd never miss a step. ... Every time they'd go down they'd shuck, back they'd duck the shell. Down they'd shuck, back, that's how quick they were. Just like that, buddy!"

Lyle Smith told Ms. Valerio how he gotten onto the popular Carr's and Sparrow's Beaches across the creek without paying the admission fees: " ... We used to swim from McNasby, 'cross the creek to Bemsey (Bembe Beach) and walk the shores and go to Carr's Beach and Sparrow's Beach," he told her. "We just walked right in. I didn't have to pay nothing. I could go right through the gate."

The March 13 seminar at Barge House is $15 per person, $12 for museum members. To reserve a seat, call the museum at 410-295-0104.

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